A conversation with Tim Scheerhorn


scheerhorn tim

SJ: How did you get started designing and building squareneck resonator guitars? Was there a master plan or was your path an evolutionary process?

TS: Well to start out, I was a player and I wanted to build a guitar I couldn’t buy. I played really nice old Regal guitars – just like Mike Auldridge’s vintage Regal’s – and they got buried in a jam session. I couldn’t get them to cut through the mix, but they sounded great. I wanted to come up with a design that would project a fuller sound out of the guitar. So I started out with that thought process in mind – as a player – never dreaming that I would build them for a living, but it certainly evolved into that later on. I knew there was a lot more going on the inside of a resonator guitar than most people had an inkling of. Early on there were a few builders – Rudy Jones, Bobby Wolfe, Dick DeNeve – that did some internal things that hinted that there was more going on inside a resonator guitar than the Dopyera’s ever thought. So mechanically I knew there were some things I could do which would improve projection. So that was the first motive. Certainly not wanting to change the way the guitars sounded like. Once I built the first guitar it evolved into the baffle. The baffle design really told me a lot.


Tim playing with his band in the late 1980’s

SJ: In what way?

TS: Well, initially I had nothing but a skirt baffle similar to a RQ Jones resonator guitar. Then I opened it up on the top and the bottom, realizing that the upper bout contributed a tremendous amount, especially in the bass and midrange. And then evolutionary design tipped it forward to the parabolic baffle that I use today. Non baffle guitars have a certain overtone that not everybody hears. But that overtone is annoying to me. It’s like an oscilloscope – (makes whooshing sounds) – that’s out of sync.

SJ: So this was part of the process that went into designing and building your first guitar?

TS: Correct, that’s the guitar (points to wall). My first guitar wound up being the same dimensions as a Regal – same physical size and depth.


the first Scheerhorn resonator guitar


SJ: So, when you finally put that guitar together, did the final set up and played it for the first time – what did you think? What was your reaction?

TS: I thought it kicked ass! (laughs)

I built that first guitar in 1989 and that July I took it with me to Winterhawk (bluegrass festival) where Mike Auldridge and the Seldom Scene were playing. I had taken it to some jam sessions around Michigan and had gotten a lot of good feedback from everyone that had played it. But at that point in time Mike was a God to me and was up on a pedestal so high. There was an intimidation factor which I overcame and I introduced myself as he walked offstage and asked him if he had a few minutes to look at a guitar that I had built. I told him “people back home in Michigan think it sounds pretty good but I sure would like your opinion.” He said “sure, I’ve got a few minutes.” So he sat on the fender of his car for the better part of an hour playing my guitar. We got to know each other; exchanged addresses and phone numbers and I told him I was so appreciative of him test driving my guitar and giving me his honest feedback. Two weeks later I got this letter in the mail (points to framed letter on wall near workbench).


SJ: What role did his feedback and/or the feedback from other players in the evolution of the design of your guitars from the original smaller body guitars to what became the L body guitars?

TS: Cosmetically I did some things differently on my very first guitar. So I wanted to refine a few things. I wanted to come up a little more unique way of putting a signature on the guitar vs. writing it on the headstock. So I got thinking about the end of the fingerboard. I had put the “S” on the peghead of the original guitar and I thought “man that was a pain” (laughs).

SJ: So it was a pain to do the inlay work – the “S” on the peghead?

TS: Correct. It was a pain to do it and then I got to thinking that most people put a strap on it and you can’t see it anyway. And so I got thinking about the Gibson Mastertone banjo which has the logo at the end of the fingerboard and I though that would look kind of cool. So I inlaid the next 4 guitars like that and it’s been that way ever since. When I first met Jerry Douglas he played two of those guitars and wound up ordering what became guitar #6. I met him backstage during the Master of the Steel String Guitars tour. They were playing in Lansing, Michigan. I had no idea how to get ahold of him, but I called information and got him on the phone (laughs). He said,  “call me the day before the show and I’ll let you know what time we can meet.” So I drove to Lansing. We met about 3 hours before the show in the green room and he played #3 and #5.


first batch of Scheerhorn guitars


SJ: What was the path from building your own guitars in Michigan to become a well-known builder? Was it a long process?

TS: Well, it happened really fast. But it was directly a result of meeting Jerry and Mike. The reason Jerry was willing to meet with me was because Mike had told him about me. During my meeting with Jerry I mentioned that I thought Sally Van Meter might be interested in a guitar like this and he said “she needs a guitar like this.” And I said “you wouldn’t happen to have her phone number”and he said “yes I do.” Back then no one had cell phones. So he got me her phone number and I didn’t have the guts to call her. It took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage. I mean these players were my idols. These were the people that I wish I could play like. So I called Sally and said “ hi this is Tim Scheerhorn” She said “ I know you. How much?” She got guitar #3. She got it mid-week and went to Strawberry Festival the following weekend. Two people ordered guitars shortly after. One call I got was from a guy named Randy Cole who has since then become a good friend. The other call was from Rob Ickes. Now this was 1990. So technically, those were spec guitars. The first ordered guitar was from Jerry Douglas. The second was Randy Cole. The third was Rob Ickes.

SJ: So if we shift a little bit from the players themselves. What happened between those first days to creating the L body guitar?


“Wavy Gravy” Koa L Body



TS: There was a period of time where every guitar was curly maple. It was kind of like Henry Ford – you could have any color as long as it was black. I always figured if curly maple was good enough for Lloyd Loar it was good enough for me. But Jerry asked me to build a mahogany guitar for him with a spruce top and that’s when I ventured into something different. He ended up playing that guitar on the Great Dobro Sessions record. Through the years that guitar wound up being Sasha Ostrowski’s guitar (with Bering Straits, now plays with Darius Rucker). Anyway, the evolution into different woods, from mahogany to Brazilian rosewood which Rob wound getting. I had taken a trip to Nashviile where Rob played that guitar and he really liked it. Several people had seen that guitar – Brazilian rosewood/spruce top with herringbone trim and mentioned that it needed some tortoise on it. So I came home and designed the tortoise pickguard and then Rob called and wanted that guitar. Awhile later I got a call from Jerry Douglas. We got to talking and he asked me if I would consider experimenting with building a larger guitar to produce a fuller sound which led to a lot of experimenting on my part to develop what later became the L body design.


SJ: Interesting! When I got my first guitar from you in 1994 – a maple guitar – I took it to a jam session and let a couple of other players give it a test drive. The first person that played it made the comment to me “wow, this guitar plays fast.”  A couple of years later when I sold that guitar and bought one of your mahogany/spruce guitars I spent a few days going back and forth between those two guitars and thinking I had made a mistake because the mahogany guitar did not project like the maple guitar. A few years later when I got my L body maple guitar I was really astonished by the differences. When I went back and compared all three guitars (I had sold the small body maple guitar to a friend of mine) the maple small body guitar had a very strong projection but didn’t have near the depth and fullness of sound of the L body maple. Whereas the small body mahogany/spruce guitar had an incredibly warm presence to it which I liked much more than the small body maple guitar. In other words, my opinion of each guitar was affected by comparing it to the other.

TS: You’re expressing it exactly how it happens. The voice is in the wood. And truthfully, we’re not talking volume. We’re talking physics and we’re talking voice. The physics of maple – it’s punchy and bright. Then you get into mahogany which is a darker voice. By comparison when you bring the L body design into the picture you have a depth and fullness of tone which wasn’t there with the smaller guitars. It’s a fuller sound, but the voice just carries with the design of the guitar itself. Curly maple is going to be a brighter and punchier sound. Comparing a standard body mahogany and now L Body mahogany – are two different worlds – but the same voice characteristics of the wood in a different way. But the voice is still in the wood.


Sinker Mahogany L Body




SJ: One way I’ve thought about this is that the standard body guitars had a more focused sound.

TS: Let’s back up a little bit. The other reason for wanting to design my own guitar was that I wanted to create an acoustic guitar out of a dobro, whereas the Dopyeras wanted to button it up by gluing the back to the top with a soundwell. No movement at all in the guitar except for the mechanical parts moving in the resonator. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted an acoustic guitar as much as I could. So the voice characteristics of these species of tonewoods really came out.

SJ: What about the contribution of the top of the guitar – the soundboard – in one of your guitars? How much does it contribute to the overall sound or tone of the guitar vs. the back and sides? Having played a bunch of your guitars I find that in certain combinations it can be huge, in other cases not so much.


TS: It can be huge. Now we’re talking a much smaller percentage compared to an acoustic guitar, but yes the top does influences the voice. For example, cedar or spruce – woods with completely different densities – will change the voice, although with a small percentage number of influence, maybe 5%. But again, stop and think about listening. The hard part for most players to understand is that there are two ways of listening: listening as a player and listening to someone else play a guitar. The same guitar is going to respond totally different in those two different environments. The important thing is to satisfy both. Sit and play the guitar and feel it vibrate, feel what it’s doing, understand the complete vocal range and where you can get certain things out of it. But then have someone else play it and stand back 10 or 15 feet and then judge it, because it’s a combination of both of those things. Sitting and playing it is a completely different experience than standing back and listening to someone else play that same guitar.

SJ: That’s a great description. I love that! I find that trying to describe the way a guitar plays or the way it sounds, for that matter, is like trying to describe a glass of wine or the nuance of a one color vs. another. I can’t always articulate why I feel the way I do about a certain guitar, there’s more information there than I can express in just a few words.

TS: Well, you’re right. First of all listening is a huge factor. But secondly, feeling is another one. There are some guitars that feel like rubber and there are some guitars which almost play themselves. I’ve had lots of my customers tell me that about my guitars.

SJ: Back to my earlier comment about the guy who played my original standard body maple guitar – “this plays fast.” I knew what he meant. Speaking from my own experience, all things being equal I find that playability and responsiveness are probably the most important features of a guitar. I’ve never played a guitar that was hard to play that produced a sound I liked. I’ve always gravitated toward instruments which were easy to play.

TS: I think it would be extremely difficult for someone to build an instrument if they don’t play that instrument. You do hear occasionally about people building violins who can’t play a lick on them. I know guys that have tried to build dobro’s who don’t play much. Part of that playability and feel is neck angle, string height, scale length – all these things combined. I can’t put my finger on why guitars play so easily. I know exactly what you are saying but I can’t reduce that to one magic ingredient.

SJ: This is a perfect segue into my next question: what came first for you, learning to do a good set up or designing and building your own resonator guitars?


Jigs for cutting string slots


TS: I played banjo for 13 years before I got interested in resonator guitars. So set up of banjos was in my blood. A friend of mine had a dobro which sounded and played really bad. I asked her if I could take it home and see if I could make it sound better. And that was before I even started playing the dobro. And I did make it sound better.

SJ: What did you do to it?

TS: I didn’t have a Quarterman cone available, but I started by straightening out the cone.  I was just looking at the mechanics; how the thing worked. The spider wasn’t level, so I leveled it. I didn’t read any manuals or anything like that; I was just looking at points of contact to make it as best I could. So, to answer your question I did a lot of set up work that carried over into how I designed and built my own guitars.


SJ: In the past you’ve said something which really intrigued me. You said something to the effect that a good set up is not just a matter of quality parts; that it’s “in the hands.” This is something that I experienced when you did the set up on my OMI 60D. I called Elderly Instruments in Lansing, MI to see if they could help me with some suggestions to amplify my dobro and they mentioned that you were building your own resonator guitars and might be able to help. When I called you we discussed the amplification stuff for a little while and you said “I’ll bet I can make your guitar sound 100% better.” Frankly, I didn’t know what to make out of that, but you certainly got my attention! What you didn’t know was that guitar never did play right from the day I bought it – it always played a little out of tune at the 12th fret, with a sort of dead spot. You did your set up – replaced the cheap plastic nut with a genuine bone nut, replaced the maple saddle inserts with ebony capped maple inserts, new #14 spider and Quarterman cone, assembled the guitar with maximum break angles to load the cone and – viola – not only did the dead spot go away, but the guitar projected better and played better than it ever had before. A few weeks later I took a lesson from a great dobro player in Chicago named Tom Boyd. When he heard my guitar – I’ll never forget the look on his face – his immediate reaction was “wow, what did you do to that guitar?” He definitely noticed the difference. Later on a student of mine purchased a OMI 60D – same guitar as mine – which was advertised as having been professionally set up. When he got the guitar it had all the same upgrades in materials but it played and sounded like crap with poorly cut string slots at the nut and the saddle and who knows what else. The difference was like night and day!

That’s a long way of getting to my question: what does it mean that it’s “in the hands?”


TS: I kind of equate it similarly to being a player. I could study Rob Ickes and do my best to play his music note for note. You could play his songs note for note, but you are not going to play it like Rob. You could study Jerry Douglas and play his stuff note for note, but you’re not going to play it like Jerry. All of the top players have signature sounds and signature things they do which distinguish them. Earlier I mentioned listening:  I can listen to records and usually I can tell you who is playing. There are clones out there today, so I can get a little confused. Some of the young guns that are out there now may sound similar to Rob, in their approach, tonally, note selection, things like that. But it’s signature stuff that takes place and I equate setting up a guitar to that same dynamic.

SJ: What does that mean in practical terms?

TS: I’ve done set up workshops for a long time. I can show anyone what I do. It’s hard to describe other than to say that I have techniques that I’ve developed, little things that I look for. From that experience I pretty much know what the end result is going to be. I still may have to tweak it after I put strings on it, but usually that’s not the case.


SJ: So, it’s 1000 little details?

TS: Yes

SJ: In the past you’ve mentioned that it’s what’s inside the guitar that counts.

TS: Yes

SJ: I think it’s hard for most people to understand that just because a guitar looks good doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to sound or play good. You really can’t judge a book by its cover. When you say it’s what’s inside that counts are you referring to the design of the guitar, the skill of the builder in putting the guitar together, the attention to detail, etc.?
TS: It’s all of those things. You have to look at the whole package. As I mentioned earlier, my objective in designing and building a guitar was projection – I wanted the sound to come out of the guitar; acoustics – I wanted to have the instrument contribute to the overall sound acoustically. So it’s a combination of things. During a setup workshop I sometimes describe this as layers of stuff. If one thing is missing it’s not going to be a finished product. Something is going to be missing.


SJ: Has your approach to building and setting up your guitars changed over the years or has it remained pretty consistent?

TS: Once I started making the L body guitars I haven’t changed a thing. I’ve honed in on my techniques a little bit, but as far as the physical construction of the guitars, I really haven’t changed a thing.

SJ: Any changes in how you approach setting up your guitar or set ups in general?

TS: There are a few details in materials, mainly in materials for bridge inserts. And certainly when I made the switch from Quarterman cones to making my own cones my goal was to come up with a cone that was the equivalent to a Quarterman, since it was the benchmark. To my surprise I feel that my cones were an improvement, especially in the bass and midrange clarity and sustain. Those key elements were better. I can tell you a story about that if you’d like.


Lathe set up for spinning cones


SJ: Sure

TS: When I first started making cones I was really excited. I had a conversation with Rob Ickes about them. Even though we lived just 40 miles apart we couldn’t find time to meet up other than at an event in Nashville that happened to be an overnighter for me. So I was staying in a hotel room. We met and I mentioned the cones to Rob and he said “let’s do it.” So I wound up taking his guitar apart 4 times in my hotel room – Quarterman out Scheerhorn in, back and forth. If you’ve ever had to gut a resonator guitar on a hotel bed it’s not a lot of fun (laughs). His initial reaction was “I think I’ve lost high-end.” I said “Rob, no you haven’t – your ear is fooling you.” Now here I am telling Rob Ickes what to listen for. I told him “you’ve gained bass and midrange which has changed your perception about high-end.” He finally agreed with me. At that point I was his ears standing far away from the guitar. But I will say this – after doing this for so long – I hear things that some people might miss, but I know what to listen for. So the move to using my own cones was a huge change for me. Not business wise, for a huge element in the overall result as I far as I was concerned.


SJ: It must have been kind of a wild ride going from building that first guitar to having a 4 year backlog and being in a position of – as I’ve heard it said – chasing the market – where you were taking orders at a certain price, but because the waiting time to get a new guitar was so long used Scheerhorn guitars were selling for more than new guitars.

TS: There was a long period of time when it was going that way.

SJ: In addition, I think there were a few folks that were ordering guitars strictly as investments, correct?

TS: People were ordering multiple guitars and in some cases would order 3 guitars, flip 2 of them and get a guitar for free.

SJ: I imagine that must have been frustrating for you

TS: First of all, to clarify my motive and reasoning behind my policy – I figured a deposit would lock in a price. My intention was to treat people the way I would want to be treated. For example if I ordered a custom guitar and the wait time was 4 years the last thing I would want would be for the builder to call me, tell me my guitar was ready, and “by the way, your price is 40% higher than what we originally discussed.” But the market said I was under priced. So raising my prices was difficult for me. I enjoyed making guitars, I wanted to make a living at it and I didn’t want to price myself out of the market. For years the people in NYC that I knew – some friends at Mandolin Brothers – kept telling me that my prices were too low. It started snowballing and I couldn’t stop it. It was an eye-opening thing when people were getting $2000 more for one of my guitars than I was charging for them. So I had a long heart to heart conversation with my wife and said “who is the dummy here?” The only control I had – and at that time I was swamped with a 4 year backlog and there was no way that was going to change – was to pull the plug and quit taking orders. As soon as that word got out the phone was ringing off the hook. Consequently, that’s how the Wish List got started. So the Wish List is nothing more than a phone number and a name, with no obligation on my part of their part. I was not obliged to build them a guitar. When I made that decision I still had 4 years of guitars to build.


Ebony/Spruce L Body



SJ: That was around?

TR: 2005 or 2006

SJ: It seemed to me that there was a lot of confusion about the dynamics at play in that situation. It certainly was a popular topic on the forums.

TS: First of all, it’s economics 101 – supply and demand – with speculation about the future.

SJ: Sort of the guitar version of Flip this House?

TS: Yes, but unfortunately I was caught in the middle of it. I had no control over those prices. I reacted to it in the only business like way I could


SJ: $500 down to order a custom-made guitar is not out of reach for most people

TS: What that did is it allowed me to buy materials, prepare for those orders. However, I also had an unwritten policy that if you wanted to cancel the order – for whatever reason – I would take $50 and return the rest to the buyer. Most builders would keep the entire $500.

SJ: What have been some of the most satisfying aspects in your career as a builder?

TS: The high point for me has been getting up every day and doing what I love to do. Not having to punch a time clock. Although every customer was a boss I didn’t have to put up with the typical corporate BS. That eliminated a lot of stress for me and enabled me to do what I love to do.


SJ: I imagine it must have been pretty exciting to have some of the greatest players on the music scene playing your guitars as well.

TS: Well, I do remember the first time seeing Jerry Douglas on television, on the American Music Shop. He was playing #6 and the camera went to a close up and on him playing my guitar and I looked at my wife and said “that was pretty cool.”

SJ: That reminds me of that Steven Seagal movie with Rob Ickes playing your guitar in that one scene.

TS: Oh yeah, Fire Down Below.

SJ: I don’t know who directed that movie but they must’ve been big fans of the resonator guitar. I do recall there was one scene with a close up of Rob Ickes playing his Scheerhorn.

TS: There’s actually a story behind that movie. Three days before he was supposed to fly out to L.A. to shoot that scene Rob Ickes was at a photo shoot for his first record and wound up dropping his guitar. Rob called me and said “Jennifer and I are flying up to visit you – I dropped my guitar and I need to have you fix it so I can make it out to L.A. to shoot a scene in a movie.” At that point he only had one guitar so he really needed to get it fixed. So they flew into Detroit late at night and wound up hitting a deer just a few miles away from my house. Couldn’t open the passenger door, it was really a messed up day! When they got to my house they were a little frazzled so we talked for a little while and I told him let’s deal with this in the morning. Now I’m an early riser, so I had the guitar repaired and ready to go by the time he woke up.

SJ: Did you replace the neck or something like that?

TS: No, he had cracked the lower bout, which left a big hole in the guitar. But, all the pieces were there so I put it all back together with epoxy. I think he was a little surprised I was able to fix it so fast. I do recall that he spent most of that morning on the phone with the insurance company from the rental car company discussing the deer accident.


SJ: Your business model defies the logic of everything I’ve been taught about marketing – no marketing materials, no website, no social media, etc. Was that on purpose on your part?

TS: in 1989 I built my first guitar and in 1994 that I made the decision to leave corporate American and starting building guitars full-time. Initially I wasn’t sure how many guitars I could build in a year or how many I would have to build to keep me employed. There were a lot of unknowns, a lot of unanswered questions. Over the years I had built a few acoustic guitars and I thought about someday expanding my offering to include acoustic guitars as well as resonator guitars so I could make a living. Initially I thought if things slow down I would advertise in Bluegrass Unlimited or other magazines. Years ago I did place an ad in Bluegrass Unlimited, I think it was in 1991, but that was the one and only time I ever did that sort of advertising. Back in your business school, I’m sure they mentioned timing and in my situation timing truly was everything. Rudy Jones guitars had run their course. Bob Reed had taken over where Rudy left off, maybe not at the same pace. Dick DeNeve and Bobby Wolfe were both making resonator guitars and Paul Beard was just getting started. I was this close to trying to find an RQ Jones. If I couldn’t find a Jones I was going to look for a Reed. I also looked at Paul Beard’s guitars. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I wound up building my own. It certainly changed my life.

SJ: How did the agreement with National Guitars to build and offer a Scheerhorn L Body come about?

TS: To answer that I need to go back to my arrangement with Wechter and Sweetwater Sound. Basically, the folks at Sweetwater had a difficult time marketing the instruments. Sweetwater’s business model is kind of unique – they have dozens of sales reps calling customers all day long – so for them to get in the business of making instruments was a step away from their core competency. The Wechter Scheehorn models involved a lot of assembly here in the United States, with the guitars being built in China and the final assembly taking place here. Sweetwater was not used to that kind of overhead and they weren’t used to selling guitars by calling all the smaller music stores all over the country. They wanted to expand the line by offering electric guitars and so on. And while the Wechter brand had some recognition, the Wechter Scheerhorn name had a very good reputation and the resonator guitars were – by far – the best-selling guitars offered by Wechter. So eventually Sweetwater made the decision to pull the plug on the Wechter brand. Fortunately, that meant that I became a free agent. I was in the process of talking with several high-profile companies about either building guitars in China and putting my name on them or something along those lines. The last thing I wanted to do was set up a warehouse somewhere here in the U.S., have containers come in and wind up rejecting guitars for poor quality. I’d known Don Young at National for many years, we were friends. So in our initial conversation I asked if he would be interested in importing guitars from China with my name on them and doing the set up work. It didn’t take him long to answer me. He said “no, but how about having us build the guitars?” Immediately the switch went on and I said “wow, that’s a no-brainer.” It’s a perfect fit for them and for me. What it did for National is give them a full spectrum of instruments – all the way from the pre-war historical National guitars to the contemporary spider style guitars. The motive for me of continuing on with something I didn’t build but designed and had influence on. It’s really about creating a legacy so that when I’m gone my grandchildren can look at say “that’s something my grandfather created.”


SJ: Where are you at this point in your career as a builder and what do you foresee for the future?

TS: I’m building very few guitars. I built 4 guitars last year. I don’t intend to build more than that this year. As far as the future, I’ll continue to do set up and repair work, on a limited basis, but technically you could say that I’m semi-retired. I still get involved with the folks at National Guitars, I still do the Reso-Summit, a few things in Michigan but I’m at a point where most 68-year-old people are – retired, or tired (laughs). I’m at a point that most people look forward to and I’m addressing it the best way I can.

The Great Debate – Mics vs Pickups for Resonator Guitar


Things have come a long way for squareneck resonator guitarists. When I got started an OMI Dobro was the only choice in guitars, pickups for resonator guitar were poorly designed or non-existant and every gig was a sonic adventure in trying to dial in the sound I was looking for. Over the years I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time and money chasing after a live performance rig which would give me the sound I was looking for and I’d like to share that story with you.

Long before the “who makes the best squareneck resonator guitar” discussions on the reso forums, one of the great debates centered around the use microphones vs. pickups for live performances. Advocates of microphones argued that only a good microphone could faithfully reproduce the sound of a resonator guitar. Pickups were viewed as a necessary evil, or worse, depending on one’s point of view.

FWIW, I lived on both sides of that debate and, starting with microphones, over the course of time I’ve experimented with a wide variety of different makes and models, including the Shure SM57, SM98, KSM137, AKG C1000, C535EB, Rode NT5, AKG C414, Audix  F9, DPA 4099G and finally settling on a Shure KSM32, which I still use today.

One of the missing elements from those discussions, a fact of life that I had to learn for myself – is that the only thing consistent about live performance venues is their inconsistency. Everything in the signal chain contributes to live performance  sound – in order of importance – venue acoustics, your guitar, microphone or pickup, amplification system, speakers, sound engineer (or lack thereof), even the number of people in a room and their attentiveness (or lack of).

It all matters.

“The sound heard in an auditorium by a listener is a complex combination of the sound produced by the gear and the way that it interacts with the room. It’s a fact that most of the sound heard by any listener gets there only after many, many interactions with the room’s surfaces. Each reflection modifies the sound a bit, and after several interactions, it looks nothing like what left the loudspeaker in the first place. The room places its own signature on all sounds radiated into it, which can either enhance or corrupt the sound. Good gear doesn’t sound good when used in a bad room.” – Audio expert Pat Brown

In a great sounding room even a mediocre microphone will sound good and a high quality microphone might sound amazing. One of my favorite places to play where I live in Chicago is at the Old Town School of Folk Music which was formerly a library which was donated to the school by the City of Chicago. The building has classic architecture with tall ceilings, wide open spaces and classrooms of many different sizes, and also includes a 425 seat theatre. As a sidebar – I’ve played in the theatre many times, but truthfully I love playing my resonator guitar acoustically in almost any room in that building. The natural reverb of playing in those spaces is a wonder to behold. A great joy. For resonator guitarists, playing in a great sounding room is the equivalent of an electric guitarist playing on a big stage through Marshall stacks. It doesn’t get better! The problem with live performance sound is that there are far more bad sounding venues than good ones – big echoey halls, small dead rooms, bars with low ceilings and noisy crowds, electric guitarists and loud drummers. If you’ve ever played in those types of environments using only a microphone you’ve experienced this inconvenient truth firsthand: any microphone, regardless of brand or quality, will feedback if pushed beyond a certain point. 

When I got started playing squareneck resonator guitar my first gig was playing in bars with a country band with two electric guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. Just a few months prior to joining the band I had spent a small fortune outfitting my OMI D60 Dobro with a Bill Lawrence guitar pickup (which I stuck on my guitar with double sided sticky tape) and an internally mounted Shure SM98 which I ran through a Pendulum acoustic instrument preamplifier. I was really excited that I’d be getting a chance to plug in and rock out with the boys in the band. This was the day of the two-pronged approach to acoustic instrument amplification – getting the best of both worlds by blending the acoustic tone of a microphone with the reliability and consistency of a pickup. Although that rig was one of the more advanced approaches for its time, the truth is, it didn’t work very well. The pickup made my guitar sound like a lap steel and I found it difficult to get enough volume through the internally mounted microphone to cut through the mix. I used that rig in a lot of different venues but I never could dial in the tone I was looking for, not to mention getting enough volume to compete with electric guitars, a bassist and a drummer.

Since that time the market has exploded and the technology for amplifying a squareneck resonator guitar has evolved – from the early days of magnetic pickups to the McIntyre FeatherSchertler Basik, Fishman Classic Series Passive Resophonic Pickup and finally to a piezo pickup like the Fishman Nashville Series pickup which is designed to be used with the Jerry Douglas Aura pedal and based on acoustic imaging technology. The Fishman pickup/Aura combination may not be inexpensive – retail price for the pickup is $199 while the JD Aura pedal retails for $319 (street prices may be lower) – but it comes very close to replicating the sound of playing through a good microphone and resolves the shortcomings of previous pickup technologies. In my opinion, the Fishman Nashville Series Pickup/Aura rig is the best sounding pickup for squareneck resonator guitars currently available. A word of caution: unless you are a handy person and familiar with these sorts of things, professional installation is recommended for the Fishman pickup.

Since installing the Fishman Nashville Series Pickup in my guitar (I had the work done by noted luthier Kent Schoonover using his modular spider) I’ve done a lot of experimenting with different preamps and spatial effects – reverbs and delays – to dial in the sound I like. In future posts I’ll provide reviews of the Radial PZ Pre Acoustic Instrument Preamp, Neunaber Stereo Wet Reverb, TC Electronics Flashback Delay, TC Ditto 2X, Peterson Stomp Classic and the Electro Harmonix Freeze.

One of the reasons the mic vs. pickup debate has faded from popular discussion is because the technology in amplifying a resonator guitar with a pickup is no longer an issue. The debate is no longer a case of “either or” but a matter of personal preference and/or needs. There will always be a place for microphones for the resonator guitarist. At the very least, having a pickup installed in your guitar is like having an insurance policy – you can always try using a microphone and plug in as needed. At their best, however, pickups provide superior consistency in live performance sound and go a long way toward helping you to cut through the mix. In addition, if you are willing to experiment, playing with a pickup opens up a brand new world of possibilities with looping pedals, reverb, delays and other sound shaping devices which, if used tastefully, can really enhance creativity and help you communicate your music to your audience more effectively.

Howard Parker shares the following key takeaways:

Several of observations as an early adopter myself:

1. As Rob pointed out it’s not a question of p/u -or- mic. It’s often a question of p/u -or- nothing. Either the environment is not suitable for a mic or the music requires the player to modify the signal with spacial or dynamic effects, something very difficult to accomplish with a microphone.

2. Amplification does not mask bad technique either from the player or the band. If fact poor player technique will be more obvious. I hear “where did that pick/string noise come from?”. The answer is pretty obvious. 😉

“I can’t hear myself in my bluegrass band” is a poor reason to go down the amplification rabbit hole. Identify and correct the problem be it player technique, uncooperative band mates or poor sound reinforcement.

3. The Nashville pickup and Aura pedal do not make a complete setup I’m afraid. Rob detailed the basic expenses but be prepared to pay much more. At the very least be prepared to add spacial effects (reverb & delay) back into to the signal chain. Those effects allow you you emulate a natural space. That natural space will cost you….

So…Think before you leap. Amplification is a valuable tool. When required there is not an alternative.

When not absolutely required it’s just a waste of money.


Rob Anderlik is a professional musician specializing in dobro and Weissenborn guitar. He is an active member of the music scene in Chicago and a frequent collaborator with players in a variety of musical genres and maintains an active schedule of gigs and studio projects. He can be found on the web at http://www.robanderlik.com

Hermann Weissenborn, the man and his guitars – an interview with author Tom Noe



Click on book to order from Amazon.com

SJ: How did you get interested in researching and writing a book about Knutsen and Weissenborn guitar? How long did it take you to actually write the book?

TN: It began with an interest in learning what led up to the invention of the Dobro and National tri-cone guitars. I had a small collection of steel guitars, and I was finally able to buy a Weissenborn at the the 1992 Seattle Guitar Show from blues musician Phil Sottile. At that same show, another young man and I were reaching for an odd-looking Hawaiian guitar. That’s how I met Dan Most. The guitar was a Knutsen Harp Hawaiian guitar. Dan already had an array of Knutsen harp guitars, but knew very little about Chris Knutsen. And I knew very little about Hermann Weissenborn. But we were both passionate about our respective instruments, and Dan suggested that we take some photos and create a calendar. But as we gathered information (and guitars!) and did the research, the project morphed into a book. The research was tedious. There was no internet nor digital cameras. But as each bit and piece was uncovered, we fitted it into a story that grew by expansion over a period of seven years. We decided early on that the focus was to be on the instruments and not personalities. Except for Neil Russell’s Dyer Harp Guitar and Phil Sottile’s Kona, all the guitars in the book belonged to Dan and me.

SJ: How did a German immigrant come to build Hawaiian guitars in Los Angeles in the 1920s? Where did the original design for Weissenborn guitars come from?

Hermann and his son in the factory, circa 1926 (Hermann’s son died in 1926)


Hermann with Meta and her boys + Thelma

Hermann with Meta and her boys + Thelma


August Mayer + Mrs. Mayer – August was the bookkeeper for Hermann Weissenborn’s guitar business.

3 ladies w guitars

This photo was taken in 1922 – that’s Concepcion Weissenborn playing a style 3 solid neck guitar, with Rosa Meyer on the right and Rosa & August Meyer’s niece in the middle

TR: Hermann Weissenborn was at a crossroads in late 1912. He had left his piano-building job in New York City to make violins with master violin maker Fritz Pulpaneck in Los Angeles, whom he had met in the piano factory. Even though the venture was called “Weissenborn & Pulpaneck, Violin Makers,” Weissenborn was relegated to an apprentice role, and soon the venture failed. Hermann leased a shop at 527 East 12th Street, to refurbish and repair pianos, the only trade he really knew. He hired a live-in housekeeper, 20-year-old Concepcion Ybarra, who had been recruited from Mexico to work in the non-union garment industry in Los Angeles. Concepcion could speak English, and she could play guitar. In her spare time, Concepcion took Hawaiian guitar lessons from Charles S. De Lano, who had a studio nearby. A loaner guitar Concepcion brought home to practice with changed Hermann’s life. The guitar was one built by Chris Knutsen in Seattle, Washington. Hermann set about copying the guitar, and a new venture was born. Concepcion introduced Hermann to De Lano. This was probably by mid-1913. Over the next two years, Hermann built almost three dozen steel guitars, mostly of what would become the Style 2 platform, with varying body depths from just one inch thick to William Pester’s 4-inch deep bodied Style 4.

SJ: Was Hermann Weissenborrn the originator of the hollow-necked steel guitar?

TN: The first hollow-necked steel guitar as we know it was created by Chris Knutsen in approximately 1909. Knutsen was known for his amazing resonant harp guitars, which had a hollow arm projecting from the upper bass bout and supporting sub-bass strings. Knutsen realized that if he “straightened” the harp arm and made a hollow box-like structure for the neck, he could make a steel guitar with improved sound quality. I have one of those 1909 Knutsen steel guitars, and there are photos of Willliam Pester, Palm Springs’ “nature boy” playing one in front of his hut. This was the guitar that Weissenborn copied and refined as he built dozens of them between 1913 and 1916. With the neck being part of the guitar body, the instruments were simple to build.

Knutsen - made in Seattle in 1909. "Patent Pending" Knutsen label

Knutsen – made in Seattle in 1909. “Patent Pending” Knutsen label

Patent Pending Knutsen Label

Patent Pending Knutsen Label


Knutsen Hawaiian guitar


SJ: Was Hermann Weisenborn responding to a demand for lap style Hawaiian guitars or did he actually create the demand by building those instruments? Were there any famous players who helped to popularize the instrument?

TN: There was a real craze for Hawaiian music during this 1913-1915 period. The recording industry churned out records, and everybody want to learn to play the Hawaiian guitar. And, of course, the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco with its Hawaiian themes and musicians helped fuel the movement. By 1916, Hawaiian music, mostly guitar solos, became the most popular form of recorded music. Music teachers, including both C.S. De Lano and Frank J. Hart (Southern California Music Co.), rushed to procure Hawaiian guitars to sell to their students. De Lano turned to such sources as Knutsen and the Shireson brothers before settling on Weissenborn as a supplier, while Hart turned to C.F. Martin & Co. There was a second wave of Hawaiian music popularity in 1922 when radio broadcasts filled the airwaves. The acoustic steel guitars were at a disadvantage in a band setting, however, and attempts were made to increase their volume. Then in 1926 the resophonic guitar was invented, followed in 1931 by the electrical steel guitar. There are very few photos of Weissenborn guitars being played. The 1925 Stadlmair catalog has an endorsement photo of Bessie Keaunui playing what looks like a Style 1. Noted players of the day, such as Sol Hoopii, quickly discarded guitar after guitar as Weissenborns, then National tri-cones, and then electric steel guitars passed through his hands. Famous players such as John Fahey, David Lindley, and Ben Harper popularized a revival of the Weissenborn beginning in the 1960s and continuing to the present.

SJ: Did Hermann make all the guitars by himself or did he employ a staff of builders? 

TN: Up until 1916 Hermann built all the guitars himself. When he set up the small factory in 1916 to build Kona guitars, he hired workers because he was starting to standardize and wanted repetitive consistency. But even then, I think he continued to handbuild instruments, particularly the solid necks. It is clear he had his eye on factory production when he sent for his son in 1921 and moved the factory to a larger building at 1196 S. San Pedro. Templates were used to locate the bracing, bridge pin holes, and tuner holes. That Rudolph Dopyera was hired as shop foreman after Hermann Freidrich’s death in 1926 suggests a fairly large work force. In researching Hermann Friedrich’s wife, Ida, I found that after Hermann Friedrich’s death in 1926 she married Fred R. Meadows, who was a guitar finisher. After the introduction of nitrocellulose lacquer to finish guitars in 1927, Meadows went back into the furniture business as a furniture finisher.

SJ: How did Herman come to offer the different models – style 1- 4 what were the price points and differences between those guitars?

TN: By 1920 Hermann had already built examples of the four models that would become Styles 1-4. I think he received sage marketing advice from De Lano, various department stores and music stores he sold through, and from Harry Stadlmair (Henry Stadlmair’s son) who became the west coast manager for distributors Bruno & Sons. Different levels of ornamentation would satisfiy different tastes and different pocket books. The 1925 Stadlmair catalog listed the four styles: Style 1, no binding, simple position dots–$40; Style 2, black binding, “fancy selected position marks.”–$56; Style3, rope binding around the top and fingerboard edges, “extra fancy position marks”–$67.50; and Style 4; rope binding around top and back, headstock and fingerboard edges, “extra fancy position marks.”–$79.

1915 Style 1/Style 2 hybrid Weissenborn guitar


1916 Style 2 Weissenborn guitar



Style 3 Weissenborn


Style 4 Weissenborn


1930 Styles 1 & 4

SJ: Over the years I’ve played maybe 15-20 different vintage Weisenborn guitars. Ironically, The best sounding/playing guitars were the least expensive style 1 models. Can you give us an overview of how the production and construction of the guitars changed over the years and any insights into why certain models may sound better than others?

TN: In my opinion all Weissenborns sound good. But some do sound better than others. My best sounding Weissenborn is a Style 2 with a paper label from about 1920. All four styles of guitars from about 1916 to 1926 with the 3” body depth are structurally the same except for the binding. Beginning in mid-1926, efforts were made to increase the volume of the guitar by altering the top’s wood mass. Heavier braces, a larger bridge plate, and a reduced bridge size were all part of this effort. Also, some of these guitars received a heavy coat of nitrocellulose lacquer. A lot of the sound difference is in the koa wood itself. Arguments have been made about which side of the island and at what altitude the koa was grown, but it is factually true that some koa is denser than other wood, and air-dried koa has less moisture content than kiln-dried koa. Finally, the player’s touch has a lot to do with the sound. You may not know this, but one man procured and cut all of the koa wood used in Weissenborn guitars. He was Albert A. Kolb, who ran the lumber yard at 9th & Main near Weissenborn’s various shops, and who was also listed as a partner in a 1926 listing of Weissenborn Co. Ltd. Diagonal saw marks from his 60” diameter saw can be seen in guitars from 1914 to the 1930s. It is evident that in the ramp-up to launching the Weissenborn factory, Kolb procured a large quantity of high-quality air-dried koa logs. Some of the most beautiful and best sounding Weissenborns I have seen and heard are from about 1920 to about 1925. Most of these are Style 1s and 4s, with some 2s. Style 3s from this era are relatively rare. The magic in these guitars is a combination of the koa wood and the hollow body design.

SJ: Any insights into how Herman came to offer the teardrop model? And why are those models so rare and so expensive?


Teardrop Weissenborn

TN: The teardrop model did not originate with Weissenborn. Knutsen made a teardrop model in Seattle in 1910. Andrew Groehsl offered a teardrop model in 1920. Weissenborn first offered the teardrop model in about 1926, and it is nearly identical to Knutsen’s 1910 model. No one really knows why the new model was introduced. Teardrop manufacture continued into the 1930s. But not many were made, and for that reason they are rare and highly desirable. As far as I know, they are all Style 1s. Most feature rather plain koa wood, but they have a sweet sound. I have seen serial numbers staked into the headstocks of several, usually a 3-digit number in the 6xx or 7xx range.

SJ: Are there any known recordings of artists playing Weissenborn guitars from the 1920s? Were there any famous artists playing or endorsing Hermann’s guitars?

TN: There are very few photographs of Weissenborn guitars being played. Prolific recording artists such as Frank Ferrera played conventional guitars with raised nuts. The Weissenborn guitar had a very short time window before being supplanted in 1926 by resophonic instruments.

SJ: When did the factory quit offering guitars? What were the circumstances that led to this?

TN: Hermann Weissenborn moved his factory to a smaller building in 1935 as the depression and electric steel guitars took their toll on the business. Hermann worked his last day on January 7, 1937 and died of heart failure at age 73 on January 30, 1937. No factory records have ever been found, and the number of instruments he made is unknown.
SJ: In your opinion, was Hermann Weissenborn a genius or was he just lucky?

TN: I think he was a little bit of both. To me, genius implies some superior intellectual ability. Hermann was in the right place at the right time with the right people when he started building Hawaiian steel guitars. Everything fell into place. To me, that is pure happenstance. But Hermann had the background, skills, and vision to pull off a successful venture. He was passionate about the guitars and remained focused, and he was a risk taker. Remember, Hermann was about 50 years old when he built his first guitar! I have always been a believer that you make your own luck.
SJ: How has writing the book affected your life?



Author Tom Noe

TN:  I have an extensive background in writing and doing research, both as a technical writer and as a patent attorney, and it something I love to do. Working with Dan Most was one of the best experiences of my life, and we enjoyed a great camaraderie together. It was serendipitous that my company was acquired by another and I had accelerated stock options to pay for publication of the book, or it woudn’t have happened. I was 61 years old at the time. Since the book was published in 1999, I have met many wonderful people who have enriched my life. I still continue to research Hermann Weissenborn and his instruments, and I enjoy sharing my findings with others.